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|Articles - April 2011|
|Tuesday, March 22, 2011|
Page 5 of 8Karen Williams served as general counsel for the PDC and head of the Seattle-based law firm Lane Powell’s public-private development group before joining John Carroll’s investment firm in January 2010. The firm has pulled off more than a billion dollars worth of projects including the light rail line to the Portland International Airport, the Portland streetcar and the new Mercy Corps headquarters. In the past it has relied on complex but familiar financial tools designed to spur investment and limit risk. But those tools are no longer sufficient to make deals happen. “Projects aren’t getting done because they can’t generate enough revenue to cover the debt payments,” Williams says. That’s why she’s following the money into EB-5 investments.
In February 2011 Williams and her team submitted their first EB-5 proposal in collaboration with the Portland-based International Sustainable Development Foundation. Their plan is to set up a regional center in Oregon and to channel money from Chinese investors into a wide variety of sustainability-themed projects throughout the state, ranging from building renovations to renewable energy plants. “We’re really focusing on bringing capital into Oregon,” she says. “We think Oregon needs infusions of capital for all kinds of projects.”
In particular Williams envisions EB-5 money providing a substantial boost to rural Oregon’s woody biomass industry by providing a new source of money from investors who are willing to accept relatively small paybacks because of the green card incentive. Those investors need to put their money into job-creating projects, and unlike solar and wind projects, woody biomass is a jobs-heavy source of renewable energy, with harvesters out in the woods gathering raw material and factory workers at the plant converting wood into electricity. Economic development professionals have been trying for years to create woody biomass jobs in struggling former timber towns such as Burns and Prineville. EB-5 money could make those projects pencil out by trading jobs for green cards.
Williams says direct foreign investment could help her group complete diverse projects in portions of the state that are often overlooked. She declines to offer specific examples while the government is still considering her application, but points out that there is no shortage of rural enterprises in need of capital. “It’s a chance for us to help smaller communities to bridge the divide and get access to capital,” she says.
Joseph McCarthy, principal of the Los Angeles-based American Dream Fund, has similarly ambitious EB-5 plans for Oregon. McCarthy was born and raised in Milwaukie and still keeps a townhouse in Lake Oswego, but most of his experience in placing foreign investments has been in Los Angeles. His firm recently put together a complex deal raising $20 million in foreign investment for a 305-room hotel in Hollywood.
McCarthy says he was surprised to learn that Oregon had no EB-5 regional centers as of 2010. After studying the state’s strategic plan for growth he submitted a proposal that targets 13 different industry sectors, such as renewable energy, apparel design and tourism.
McCarthy, who lobbies for the program on a national level, learned about EB-5 when he was a policy adviser to Washington Gov. Christine Gregoire. A Seattle immigration lawyer named Henry Liebman was (and still is) channeling huge sums of foreign capital into urban real estate, and McCarthy recognized the opportunity in what Liebman was doing. “The investor is willing to accept below-market rates of return, provided you can get them a green card,” McCarthy says. He sees no problem with that: “We offer immigration privileges to foreigners for a variety of reasons… It’s not unreasonable to offer them the opportunity to invest in this country and create jobs, and to receive a green card in return.”
McCarthy expects to hear back from the government on his EB-5 proposal in Oregon this spring.
David Luo is also eager to hear back on his EB-5 proposal for Oregon. Luo is a project manager for American United Development Group, a Vancouver, BC-based company with a long history of bringing foreign investment into Canada through a similar program. But the Canadian program has slowed down since the government doubled the required investment for a green card from $400,000 Canadian to $800,000.
“The doubling of the amount required in Canada has already created a shift from Canada to the U.S.,” says Luo. “The number of people applying for the Canadian program has dropped and the number applying to the U.S. is increasing rapidly.”
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The New Yorker recently published a sharply worded critique of “disruptive innovation,” one of the most widely cited theories in the business world today. The article raises questions about the descriptive value of disruption and innovation — whether the terms are mere buzzwords or actually explain today's extraordinarily complex and fast changing business environment.
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